Category Archives: Personal

Mary Lou Thorne Samuelsen

My Mom was my pal and my confidante. She was my friend, in addition to being my Mom. When I was younger, she was the one member of my family I felt I could really talk to. She was a school teacher, and she’d come home from a hard day at school, and get started on dinner, and there I was, pestering her. I’m sure it got awfully annoying. But she never pushed me away, never sent me off, never so much as suggested that I was bothering her, or ask me to leave her alone. She listened. She engaged. Sometimes she’d disagree, show me where my thinking about some issue had gone off the rails. What she never did, never once that I can remember, was push me away.

Mary Lou Thorne Samuelsen. She didn’t particularly like the ‘Lou.’ Preferred just Mary, unless Dad called her ‘Lou,’ teasingly. She didn’t mind that. She was the only woman in a family of rambunctious boys. Three sons, and a husband who was a boy through and through. We were outdoorsy and active, loved sports and hiking and waterskiing and wrestling. And fart jokes and terrible puns and pranks. Mom was, well, ladylike and refined. She did all the guy things we guys did, but with a feminine twist. So we’d go waterskiing. She loved waterskiing–her way. She’d slowly lower herself off the boat, careful not to muss her hair, and ski sedately behind the big boat, and then toss the tow rope aside and slowly sink into the lake, her hair still in pristine condition. We’d go camping, and she’d camp along with us, but while we were climbing trees and annoying bears, she’d find a comfy camping chair and sit there with a book.

She loved to read; still does. When she was a kid, she’d strap on her roller skates and skate down to the Provo library, and check out a half dozen books, and then at home, she’d climb out her window and onto the roof and read, where she wouldn’t be disturbed. I never saw her do that, but I believe it; she grew up in my great-grandmother’s house, and it had large gabled windows leading onto the roof. And the roof meant privacy. That’s my Mom. She was an outgoing, friendly person, but also very private, if that makes sense.

In some ways, the defining event of her life–of her family’s life–was the murder of her father, my grandfather, Harold Arthur Thorne, in 1940, when she was five. He was a traveling salesman, and he picked up a hitchhiker who killed him and stole his car. The killer was caught soon thereafter, and his trial remains my Mom’s earliest memories. The prosecutors wanted Mom and her four siblings to sit on the front row, in front of the jury, to remind everyone of a family deprived of their father. When the trial was over, my Grandmother, Lucile Thorne, moved in with her mother, Mary Markham, and Grandma Mary raised the kids, while Grandma Lucile went to work. Grandma Lucile eventually earned a PhD, and was hired on the faculty of BYU. She was a remarkable woman, and I was very close to her. But all of my aunts and my uncle were remarkable.

That generation of women, the ones born in the ’30s, raising their families in the late ’50s and early ’60s, that whole group weren’t expecting to, or expected to, work. They were to be the homemakers, while their husbands were the breadwinners. But my Mom and my fierce and smart and funny and wonderful aunts–Janice, Joyce and Sally–knew how untrustworthy that expectation could be. They all received advanced academic degrees, and they all worked professionally. (Aunt Sally also joined her Mom on the BYU faculty). Uncle Jim was also outstanding–a brilliant architect and a gentle and kind-hearted soul. The murder didn’t poison them. But it did affect them–how could it not? My Mom never particularly considered herself a feminist. But she was tough, independent, and proud; an overachiever. One Relief Society lesson too many on why women shouldn’t work outside the home and she boycotted Relief Society for years. Until a sensible bishop called her as Relief Society President.

My Mom was loyal. That’s the best word I can think of to describe her; loyalty was second nature to her. To Mom, loyalty meant that if someone she loved was fond of something, she would do whatever possible to understand it and embrace it and become fond of it too. She didn’t particularly like basketball, but then my brother Rob played on the varsity basketball team, and my Mom became an avid, knowledgeable and deeply passionate basketball fan. Same with me and theatre; same with Rolf and caving. If we were into something, she got into it too.

I’m sure that when she was growing up, she didn’t really expect to be an opera buff. But my father was an opera singer, and so she became a huge opera fan. We talked about it sometimes. You think of ‘opera,’ and you tend to think of a pastime, an art form, that is effete, precious, esoteric, refined. My father was a university professor and an opera singer; that suggests a certain aesthetic and approach. Hoity toity?

Not so much. In fact, if you know opera at all, you know that it’s the most melodramatic, spectacle-laden, overpowering, sensational art form ever invented. My Mom loved Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and especially Wagner. She loved the preposterous, violent, sexy plots, and the big, bombastic music. She loved the excitement of it, the energy. She loved opera, with everything it implies. She wasn’t much into chamber music. Wanted full orchestras, and other-worldly human voices rising above all the instruments in the pit. She thought rock-and-roll was, in contrast, rather tame. All that electronically generated sound; it felt unearned, she thought. I liked rock, and she’d politely listen, and she’d try to find the good in it–she rather liked Jethro Tull, for example. Simon and Garfunkle, some. But it just was all so tame, in her view. Opera’s visceral guttiness was what she loved about it.

Her way. She wanted to sit in the theater, sedately, and politely applaud at the end. She wasn’t a demonstrative fan, particularly. She loved opera, but she was always, always lady-like about it.

And so, as a teacher, she had her students write operas. She took a workshop offered by the Met, and she’d work with her kids. They did all the work; they wrote the scripts, they composed the music–there were always a few kids who had taken piano lessons–and they performed. And Mom would supervise. It was the highlight of the school year for those kids, and Mom loved doing it. She eventually worked with Michael Ballam, director of the Utah Festival Opera, and he brought the opera program to grade schools in Utah. She’d videotape the kids’ operas, and I watched a few. They were splendid. They were operas about issues the kids themselves were concerned about–bullying, and peer pressure, and making friends. Life changing. Couldn’t happen today, with teachers all teaching to the test, and what a shame that is.

And, oh my gosh, she could be funny. You could tease her, and she’d tease right back. She was, in short, an innovator and educator, a well-read sophisticated woman with a wicked wit and a deep compassion, and she was also my best friend.

A lot of that’s now gone. She has Alzheimers, and we’re losing her.  She is moving to Utah next week, where we can move her into a memory care facility, where she can be safe and have her medical needs met. She moved with my Dad to Indiana in 1962, and now she’s coming back to Utah. I wish there was another, better answer, but I’m aware that there really isn’t. She can still remember some things, from the past. Chatting with her, I can see the ghost of my Mom. But she’s lonely, and frightened, and we need to care for her. The way she cared for us.

But she’s extraordinary. Strong and capable and courageous. I’m so amazingly lucky.


Adrift: Movie Review

A few years ago, my niece Marilyn went on a boat ride. A friend owned a big sailboat, and proposed to sail it from New York to London–did she want to come along? Marilyn is the most fearless and intrepid woman I know, and said sure. And in the North Atlantic, a hurricane hit, and the boat was badly damaged. She somehow survived, rescued by a Portuguese fishing boat. Her boat sank a few minutes after her rescue.

So when I saw the trailer for Adrift, about a young couple who survive their boat being wrecked in a Pacific hurricane, I knew this was a must-see movie. I mean, it’s the Marilyn Stout story! (And if any Portuguese fisherman had showed up in the movie, we were prepared to sue!). Different ocean, of course, different circumstances, different time frame. And Adrift is based-on-a-true-story, but it’s actually about a woman named Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley), and her fiancee, Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin), back in the 1980s.  (Marilyn and her co-sailor were never romantically attached). But the basic situation is equally dire. A sailboat, a hurricane, a really big ocean. The deep blue sea, and desperation and a fight for survival. And, honestly, Shailene Woodley even looks a little like my niece.

And Adrift is truly terrific, genuinely exciting and harrowing and scary. Although the screenplay’s insistence on emphasizing the Troo Luv attachment between Tami and Richard got a bit cloying, Claflin and Woodley make it work. They’re both–wait for it–adrift, rootless people in love with the rhythms and textures and solitude of the sea. And they find each other, and are convincingly in love with each other throughout, and it works.

Woodley in particular is first-rate. I’ve always liked her as an actress, and she’s great in this. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that Richard is unable to do much to help them survive; she has to navigate, jury-rig a sail, catch fish to survive, pump the water-logged boat out. She has to do everything. And she’s up to it. And I love that.

I love stories about competent people. I love stories about people who can fix things and arrange things, and do what’s needed to survive. In this story, Tami is the less-experienced sailor of the two of them, but she figures things out. She’s a strong, capable, insanely courageous woman. The movie sets various obstacles in her path, and she surmounts them. She finds food and water, she operates a sexton, she seats a mast, she sets sails, she clears the rudder of the drag of an errant sail, she spearfishes. I mean, it’s a tale of survival. Woodley survives. Her performance carries the movie. Quite spectacularly, in my view. Sunburnt, dehydrated, starving; she survives. If you think of Shailene Woodley as a teen star, or as the Divergent girl, think again. She can flat-out act.

The Icelandic director, Baltazar Kormakur directed, and once again proved he has a dab hand for man-vs-nature. The last movie of his I saw was Everest, in which Josh Brolin and Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke battled the elements found on the world’s tallest mountain. It’s kind of a favorite of mine, in part because Kormakur captured both the magnificence and danger of that amazing mountain. He does the same here–captures the loneliness and isolation and teeming life and power of the ocean. I read somewhere that filming was difficult, because mostly the movie was shot on location on the open sea, and the crew kept getting seasick. I bet. I was completely engaged throughout.

Above all, I appreciated being able to have the visceral experience of, well, being alone and terrified and injured in a small boat on the ocean. My grandfather was a seaman, and I loved hearing him tell his tales, not just about ports he visited and places where they docked, but those long empty days and nights peering over an endless horizon. And my niece, who I completely adore, survived a hurricane in a boat. Survived a damaged craft, no radio, no engine, sails in scraps. I know it’s just a movie, but I’m grateful for that tiniest hint of vicarious shared experience. And am, and always will be, grateful to Poseidon for sparing her.


Fat Spock

I’m fat. I even blogged about it a couple of years ago. I’m fat. I claim that word; I own it.  I’m not particularly proud of it, but, heck, it’s true. I’m a big guy. A chubbo. A slob.

There’s another term that applies, not a cultural term, but a medical one. I’m also morbidly obese, with several co-morbidities. That’s what my doctor said recently. And my weight is a problem, medically speaking. And so it’s time to lose it.

This summer, I learned that the clinic where I go for most of my health care problems offered a weight loss program. I signed up. I was assigned a nutritionist–the estimable Megan–and have a rotating group of three doctors who co-supervise. And I’ve lost just under 80 pounds since this summer.

In my first meeting with my nutritionist, I told her about my theory of weight loss. I call it “Fat Spock.” Spock, on Star Trek, was all about logic. ‘That is not logical’ was his favorite put-down, in his many disputes with Dr. McCoy. I figure, it’s illogical to eat more food than you need to sustain yourself. Getting fat is not logical. It’s all tied to habits and emotions and feelings and self-worth and body image and our society’s obsession with appearance and presentation. I have to ignore all that. I have to be Spock about this. Do I need that candy bar, that ice cream, that brownie? I do not. It is therefore illogical to eat it.

Megan likes that: ‘Fat Spock.’ Says it’s going to be the title of her book, when she gets around to writing one. I told her she was welcome to it.

I told Megan from the beginning that what I wanted was a program that was medically supervised and scientifically valid. That’s what they’ve got me on. I bought a bathroom scale, and weigh myself on it every morning, pretty much at the same time every day. I also got the Fitness Pal app on my phone, log every single morsel I eat. Fitness Pal then tells me how much protein I’m eating, how much fat, how many carbs. Just points out where I could do better. I also bought a Fitbit, which nags at me if I don’t make my exercise goals.

Do I feel better, healthier, skinner? Sometimes. I can’t fit into my clothes anymore, and that’s a good thing. Baggy clothes fit nicely with my homeless hobo aesthetic. I needed (and got for Christmas) a new belt. Down three pants sizes. I’m not about to pat myself on the back, though. Self-congratulations is an emotional response, and emotion is the enemy here.

I also have a long way to go. I also feel pretty crappy most of the time. Dizzy, disoriented, nauseous. That’s because most of the weight I have lost has been water weight, and I’m pretty much constantly dehydrated. I take water pills, but I hope to reach a point where they are no longer needed.

As I said, though, emotions are the enemy. I can’t get down on myself if I have a bad day. I’m like a good quarterback who throws an interception. If he beats himself up over it, if he gets down on himself, it may prevent him from making a better play next time. It gets in the way. It’s not helpful.

And see, that’s the problem with weight loss. Getting fat is illogical. We tend to view fatness as having a moral dimension which, frankly, it doesn’t. We say ‘I don’t have the self-discipline to stick to a diet.’ We think, ‘I’m a big fat slob, and I can’t do this.’ I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’m lacking self-control, I’m not strong enough. I deserve this.’

None of those thoughts, none of those feelings are helpful. Megan won’t even let me say I’m on a diet, because of the emotional baggage that word carries.  Feelings get in the way. And they are, absolutely, Not True. I’m not a fat, sloppy, inconsistent slob. I’m a successful person in lots of ways. I just need to do this thing, this weight loss thing. And if I have a bad day, cheat, eat something I shouldn’t or not walk when I should, well, okay. That happened. Yesterday. Has nothing to do with today.

Right now, the estimable Megan has me on something called optifast. It consists of soup, energy bars, and shakes. I can eat five a day, in any combination. The shakes are kinda chalky; the protein bars taste like cardboard, the soup’s too thin. Doesn’t matter. They’re nutritious and therefore helpful. I also get one meal of, you know, actual real food. I’m allowed one small piece of meat, a multi-grain pasta or rice, and lots of veggies and fruits. That’s dinner. I eat around 1200 calories daily, but those calories are packed, meet all my nutritional needs.

It also probably isn’t going to be enough. By the time I’m done with this, I will have lost around 240 lbs. I’ve lost 76. A good start, but I have a long way to go. Very likely, bariatric surgery will be needed; I’m prepared for that, though the estimable Megan wants to see how optifast works for me first.

I’m fat. But I’m being Spock about it. It really is illogical to be fat. Time to let logic take over.

Christmas talk, 2017

I spoke in Church today. Here is my talk.

I have a friend, a former student, who was telling me about her five-year-old. They just got a kitten, and this little boy loves it. For his recent birthday, he said he wanted to become a cat. So they got him some cat pajamas, with a little cat tail and cat feet slippers, and he loves it. Running around the house, making cat noises. But then, my student told me, he was racing around, and slipped, and slid across the floor of their house, right down the stairs, thump thump thump to the landing below. She ran to the stairs to see if he was okay. And then she heard his little voice, saying “Okay. One life gone, eight more to go.”

I can identify with that little boy actually. This last year, I’ve definitely felt like I’ve used up at least a couple of cat lives myself. But thanks be to great doctors and hospitals and nurses, I’m doing much better. And when I think back on 2017, what I remember are moments of joy. The things I love most in life, friends and family, theatre and movies, books, and above all, music have sustained me, even in times of difficulty.

And as I’ve had leisure to think about it, I realized that illness and pain and difficulty are only to be expected and accepted. Suffering, disappointment, diseases and their symptoms, depression and loss, were always part of the deal. Mortality is a test, after all. It had to be that way. It had to be hard, to obey, to serve, to grow, to be kind. There also had to be unfairness, unwarranted suffering, undeserved pain. Life wasn’t fair for Job. And we believe that the atonement will reconcile everything, will heal every hurt and right every wrong.

But as I’ve contemplated this, something else occurred to me. Pain’s essential; Beauty may not be. The ability to experience the loveliness of Earth, and even to create beauty ourselves; that may not necessarily be required. It may just be a blessing. Look to our north. Check out Timpanogas. We don’t have to see it as beautiful. It could be, to us, nothing more than a great stone barrier, fallow ground, bad for crops and rotten for travel. But we don’t. It’s glorious. And that’s just one mountain, just one sight, amid the infinity of wonders we call our home. Annette and I once had a calling in the nursery, and we were supposed to teach the kids lessons. Two year olds; lessons. But the manual for the class was terrific. One lesson: Trees show how Heavenly Father loves us. That’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it? But doesn’t all beauty, all loveliness, all art, all music testify of God’s love? They’re extra, they’re free gifts. They’re not necessary parts of the test. But they’re wonderful, because that’s also who Heavenly Father is; wonderful is one of His names. And the greatest gift of all, I think, is music.

Hold that thought.

It’s Christmas Eve, and tomorrow we celebrate the arrival of the Christ child; the birth of Jesus. And yes, it was the beginning of atonement, the essential moment when Jehovah received his mortal flesh. But it was something else too. An ordinary thing, a young couple, making a journey, a young woman giving birth.

Why do we not think of Christmas as a women’s holiday? Why is it not a feminist celebration? Is there anything more uniquely and spectacularly female than giving birth? And consider this: Mary was the first woman, in the history of the world, to know one thing. She knew that her baby would live. Angels told her that her baby would live. I love that thought. Not that we should ignore poor Joseph. His part was colossal; male role model for Deity. How do you nurture that nature? But Christmas is about Mary.

And a journey. Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, in Judea; Bethlehem was in Galilee, perhaps because some inflexible bureaucratic regulations required them to go there for a census. We usually picture Mary riding a donkey, but it’s unlikely they could have afforded one; in all likelihood, they walked. It’s seven miles as the crow flies, probably closer to ten by foot; it’s a rocky and difficult terrain. Probably took two days.

They were poor. As I understand it—I don’t speak Greek– Mark and Matthew use the word ‘tekton’ to describe Joseph. Tekton can be translated ‘carpenter,’ but more often, it’s translated ‘laborer.’ It’s the lowest rung in Roman society; Luke, writing years later, gave him a promotion to ‘peasant.’ And Nazareth was, literally, the punch line to a joke.

They arrived in Bethlehem exhausted. There was no room for them in the inn, because there is never room for the poorest of the poor. And then Mary went into labor, in a stable, the only shelter they could find.

We don’t just appreciate beauty, we create it. Which is hardly surprising, given who our Heaven Parents are, and who we are meant to become. As Sister Gayle Rice recently posted on Facebook, “as we awaken to our own creativity, we open ourselves to the power of God, and His influence and direction.” She would know; she’s a wonderful artist. So when we think of an event like the nativity, so simple and so packed with meaning, it’s hardly surprising that so many artists have chosen that moment, in that Bethlehem stable as their subject. One of my favorites is a painting by Brian Kershisnek. Tucked into the corner of a huge canvas, are the holy family. Joseph, looking terrified, as though he’s just begun to understand what he’s taking on. Mary, exhausted, of course. Baby Jesus. And filling the rest of the canvas, hundreds upon hundreds of angels. They also have a dog. The dog’s the only one who can see the angels. He seems quite delighted by them. It’s hanging at the BYU Museum of Art: check it out.

Art enhances, magnifies, intensifies, reinforces. Art can also distort; it’s a powerful force, and needs to be wielded carefully. And there are many paintings of the Nativity. But what I love most of all is the music.

And so I’m drawn to holy scripture. Specifically to hymns numbered 201 to 214 in the hymnal we open every Sunday. And when I look at those hymns, a couple of things strike me immediately. First of all, there are no LDS hymns among them. They’re all from the European or American Protestant tradition. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But it reminds us that Christmas really is for and about everyone. Our hymnal should appropriately expresses an ecumenical generosity of spirit.

And each hymn takes some small aspect of the Christmas story and amplifies it, directs our attention to it, urges us to contemplate it. The first hymn, 201, is Joy to the World, which is hardly about the nativity at all. Instead it looks forward, to his return, to the time when “Jesus reigns, and saints their songs employ. When “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.” It’s a triumphant imagining of an event that hasn’t happened yet. So we start with a comprehensive look at the entire mission of our Savior. 202, Oh Come all Ye Faithful, reminds me a lot of Kershisnek’s painting. Someone had to get all those angels there. It’s in the voice, I imagine, of the choir President, making all those reminder phone calls. Come along, everyone! It’s happened! Come, all of you, to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the king of angels. Come, let us adore him.”

203, Angels we have heard on High, takes a different tack. We’re not in the angelic choir anymore; we’re bystanders, wondering what’s going on. Oh, look, shepherds; they might know. “Shepherds, why this jubilee? What the gladsome tidings be, which inspired your heavenly song.” And we get an answer, but for some reason it’s in Latin. Gloria, in excelsis, Deo.

And then comes 204. Silent Night. I love this hymn. And here’s the thing; childbirth is never silent. And we don’t want it to be. We want newborn babies to cry, it signals vitality and strength, we want our new child to be healthy. But afterwards, after the mess and confusion and pain of childbirth, there comes a moment when the new mother holds the infant in her arms, and both of them, finally, rest. Silent Night is about that moment, as a bewildered but staunchly supportive Joseph stands watch, as Mary and her heavenly child enjoy a moment of reverential repose. And while a heavenly chorus was undoubtedly rejoicing musically, I hope they sang sotto voce, a focused and intense pianissimo, letting mother and child, holy infant, so tender and mild, get some sleep.

I don’t have time to go over the rest of our Christmas hymns. But I want to call your attention to the last hymn in the cycle, number 214. You’ll be invited to join the choir in singing it later in this meeting. It’s I heard the bells on Christmas Day, a lovely setting of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow wrote it in 1863, at the height of the brutal slaughter of that horrific exercise in incivility, American civil war. Longfellow had long opposed slavery, but the war depressed him mightily. Adding to his depression, his beloved wife Frances, known as Fanny, died shortly after the war began, in a house fire. Then his son, Charles, very much against his wishes, enlisted, and in his first battle, was badly wounded. The accumulation of political and personal tragedies find expression in the song’s third verse. “And in despair, I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men.” When our choir sings in just a moment, pay note to the beautiful arrangement by brother Curtis Winters of that powerful verse. And which of us wouldn’t be similarly overwhelmed. By the horrors of war, by the hatred of people who had once been united, and by the death of a beloved spouse, and terrible injury to a beloved child?

But that is not the meaning of Christmas bells. That pain, that sorrow, though understandable, belays the hope that came to earth in that Bethlehem manger.  No heartache can exist that the atonement cannot heal. God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail; the right will prevail. And the message of this Christmas season, the meaning of all Christmas seasons, is peace on earth, good will toward men.

The great and everlasting atonement is an all encompassing purpose. But it wasn’t the only message Jesus brought. Christmas does not just urge upon us a generosity of soul and spirit, but physical, temporal, active generosity of action. As James Martin, a Catholic priest, wrote in a recent LA Times editorial, “Is it any surprise that Jesus felt such intense compassion for the poor and marginalized? That he constantly asked his disciples to care for the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the stranger?” The child born in a Bethlehem manger was also born into the most abject poverty. And that choice, and it was a choice, was made for him by our Heavenly Father. And it was a magnificent event, a beautiful event, made even lovelier through the music by which we celebrate it. But let’s not be blinded by that beauty. The nativity also imposes on us an obligation, even unto the least of them, our poorest and most deeply suffering brothers and sisters. Remembering that obligation is perhaps the truest meaning Christmas has.

Christmas, and the economy

I am, it turns out, rich. ‘I don’t think of myself as rich. I’m not a billionaire. I’m not a millionaire. I actually consider myself pretty averagely middle-class. But by at least one measure, I’m rich.

I’m hard to buy for at Christmas.

My brother and I were talking about this the other day. We’re not either of us actually rich. But we’re both hard to buy for. There really isn’t anything that I want or need that I can’t afford to buy. House? Paid for. Credit card debt? Nonexistent. Car. Well, we do owe money on our new car. We could have paid cash; instead, we thought we’d finance it, pay it off really fast, take the bump in our credit rating.

We have bills, of course. But my wife and I, if we want to go out to dinner, we just do it. If we want to see a movie, we see it. We’re fairly prudent, fiscally speaking. Love a good deal, love a bargain, still comparison shop. But we’ve really very comfortable. For which happy circumstance, by the way, I deserve exactly zero credit. My wife’s the money manager.

So when my family asked me for a Christmas list, I was at my wits end. Couldn’t think of a thing. I saw a commercial for a dingus that helps you put your socks on more easily; I put that on my list. A sock putter-on-er. There are always a couple of books I wouldn’t mind having. Movie passes. But truly, honestly, I couldn’t think of much.

Which, as it happens, is kind of bad for the US economy.

The US economy is not terribly robust right now. The Great Recession is over, and the economy has recovered, but we’re not exactly at peak growth. And I’m part of the problem. I’m one of the people who is supposed to be driving demand, and I’m not doing it. My generation is really falling down. We have pretty much everything we need. We’re fine. Just today, a book was recommended to me, one I’d like to buy, I think. Checked it out on Amazon; it’s available on Kindle for four bucks. So that’s actually not going to help much.

The Republicans just passed a big tax bill, which they’ve been selling as mostly a middle-class tax cut. It isn’t. It’s mostly for millionaires and billionaires, and people with pass-through business revenues and the CEOs of big corporations. But there is a tiny cut for guys like me, the middle-class wealthy. We’ll make a few hundred extra dollars this year. If we spend it all, the theory is that that money will trickle-down to the hewers of wood and drawers of water in our country. And everyone will benefit. Yay.

Except I probably won’t. ‘Cause, see, I’m kinda hard to buy for.

That’s why a supply-side approach to stimulating growth won’t work, not now, not in this country. It’s a silly notion anyway. Increasing supply will not increase demand. What we need is a tax cut for the lower class. They got demand covered; all kinds of things they need. What we need is to put more money in the pocket of those folks who need stuff. We need a demand-side recovery, funded by tax hikes for the super rich.

Right now income inequality is higher in the United States than it was in France in 1789. The big difference between then and now is that our sans culottes are better armed. This Republican tax bill is nuts on a whole bunch of levels.

So what I actually want for Christmas this year is an electoral wave. What I want is fewer Republicans in Congress to write dumb bills like this one. Getting that to happen is going to cost some money, and thanks to this bill, I may have it to give.

What I want for Christmas is a midterm landslide. And thanks to Republicans, I may actually get it.

Watching All the President’s Men in 2017

This afternoon, I was home alone, and happened to notice that HBO was screening All the President’s Men. Great film, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman at the top of their game as Woodward and Bernstein. Screenplay by William Goldman. Beautifully directed by Alan J. Pakula, and shot by the great Gordon Willis, the cinematographer known as ‘the prince of darkness’ for his wonderful use of shadows and unlit corners. The film holds up beautifully.

Obviously, though, that’s not why I watched it. John Oliver has called the Russian collusion scandal “stupid Watergate,” which is to say, it’s a scandal as consequential as Watergate, but carried out by dumber people. I was in high school during Watergate, and I remember vividly coming home from school every day and watching the Congressional hearings on TV. I was a news junkie back then, and I knew all the players, not just Nixon and Haldeman and Dean, but bit players too: Kalmbach, Magruder, Segretti, Hugh Sloan.

Richard Nixon was an intelligent and capable man. He certainly had his character failings, one of which, his thin-skinned sensitivity to criticism and his paranoid creation of enemy lists seem rather Trumpian. Nixon also seemed more ruthless. In All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein were told that their lives were in danger, and in the movie, we believe them. They thought, and people generally thought, that Nixon could have his enemies killed. That turned out to be groundless. But everyone around Nixon seemed to be, at least, good at their jobs. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, both men were noted for their intelligence and competence. The analogous folks in Trump’s White House would be John Kelly, chief of staff (like Haldeman), and senior counselor Jared Kushner, special councilor to the President, similar to Ehrlichman. The one apt comparison would be the comically inept Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler, and the ghastly Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose job seems to be to reinforce whatever the lie of the day is coming from the President.

That’s the biggest difference, though, between Nixon and Trump. Nixon was smart, a genuine expert on foreign policy, a real diplomat, but also amoral and vindictive. Nixon lied, but it wasn’t always easy to see through his lies. Whereas Trump is willfully, intentionally, insistently ignorant. You wondered, with Nixon, what he believed, and how it informed his governing. With Trump, you just assume he’s what he appears to be; a not-very-bright braggart narcissist.

Trump just lies all the time, about matters of importance and more trivial matters. He lies reflexively; telling a lie seems to be his default position. He drives the press corps crazy, not because he tries to mislead them, but because he’s so brazen about it. He lies when he doesn’t have to, lies when the truth is perfectly obvious to everyone. When he’s not lying, he’s bragging. And then, when it would do him the most damage, seemingly, that’s when Trump tells the truth, just blurts it out.  That really wasn’t Nixonian.

Both Nixon and Trump have been accused of obstruction of justice, for example. One of the reasons All the President’s Men is such a great film is Gordon Willis’ cinematography. So shadowy, so mysterious. That’s the feel of Watergate. No wonder the key figure in the film is Deep Throat, this guy meeting Woodward in parking garages. That’s not Trump. He’s all bluster. Did you ask James Comey to shut down the Russian investigation? Nixon would have obfuscated, offer some legalistic defense. Trump says ‘yes, I did, because I was trying to shut down the Russian thing.’ Nixon would never have done that.

But, then, Nixon couldn’t. Yes, he was head of the Republican party. But the Republicans were a different party then. For one thing, the party wasn’t consistently conservative. It was home to both Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, two men who couldn’t agree about anything. Nixon himself self-identified as a conservative, but he in domestic policy, he would be a moderate Democrat today. And in both parties, there were politicians of integrity, people who were appalled by Watergate as the drip drip drip of new information about the coverup became known.

That’s not true anymore. The Republican party is the conservative party; a Rockefeller or a Charles Percy (liberal Republican Senator from Illinois) wouldn’t be welcome in it anymore. And politics had norms and standards and traditions Nixon had to at least pretend to follow. Trump sees all that nonsense as so much political correctness.

Trump’s lies are open and obvious. It should be much easier to catch him. It won’t be, because the Republicans seem unwilling to investigate even his most egregious statements and actions.

Nixon had to pretend not to be a crook. Trump, far more obviously, is a crook. So what? say his followers. A crook? A colluder? Possibly even a traitor? Who cares. He’s going to make American great again. And that’s all that matters.

Why I haven’t been able to blog

When I started this blog, I saw it as a chance to weigh on a wide variety of topics and ideas, including ideas that I fully admit I don’t have the credentials to talk about at all. I’m a playwright with wifi. I’m not a journalist, nor am I a policy expert.

But. While I’m also not an economist, I spent two years trying to learn enough about economics to write a play about two important economists; I’m not a scholar of Mormonism, but have dipped my toe into the field; I’m an historian, but in theatre history. I’m a reasonably well-read generalist, with a pack rat mind, and the most varied possible reading habits. I’m a pretty experienced movie and theatre critic. I’m a baseball and basketball nut. And so I thought my blog would be like, well me. Eclectic and curious. All over the map. I strive for open-mindedness, and although I am a liberal, I respect conservatives and conservatism, and try at least to get it right. I want to be reasonable. I like conversation. And I’m always willing to admit it when I’m wrong about something. And I enjoyed blogging. I looked forward to it. And some people were kind enough to say that they enjoyed reading it.

Then two things happened. The first is, my health took a nasty turn, and I had to endure several months of hit-and-miss medical issues. I won’t bore you with the details, and I am doing much better now, but I found that I often just didn’t have the energy to do something as creative, even, as blogging.

But the second is–and I’m ashamed to admit this–but Donald Trump’s Presidency just wore me down. The lying, the buffoonish approach to policy, the savage destruction of governing norms, the blatantly incapable people in his cabinet, the crudeness, the coarseness, the open racism, the Islamaphobia–I just reached the point where I didn’t want to write about it. I could, of course, have simply abandoned politics as a subject. But that felt like an abdication of citizenship. There have been Presidents in the past that I simply disagreed with. But this is something different, something new, something unprecedented. The Trump Presidency represents, if anything, an ongoing crisis, a continuing assault on the most cherished American values.

And it doesn’t matter. I have voted for Republicans for public office on occasion, when I thought they were more capable than their opponents. I live in Provo; most of my friends are Republicans. I have generally thought of Republican politicians as fundamentally decent, honorable, patriotic people with whom I differed on matters of policy.

Not any more. Not now. The craven willingness of national Republicans to enable the worst instincts of the worst human being to serve as President in our nation’s history is probably the most disheartening part of our current political environment.

It wore me down. If I just wrote movie reviews or wry commentary on Mormon culture, I’d be ignoring an all-encompassing national emergency. So I took the cowards’ way out. I stopped writing at all.

No more. I will resume a full blogging schedule starting tomorrow. And yes, I will review movies, and comment on Mormon culture, and reflect on sports, and chat about theatre, and tell you about the new book I just read. But I will also address national issues of import.

I’m sorry I went away. If you’ve given up on me, I don’t blame me. But I’m back, and will try to re-earn your trust.

Roy Samuelsen, 1933-2017

My father had terrible toes. They were badly misshapen, gnarled and twisted. He wasn’t particularly embarrassed about it; when someone noticed and said something, he’d laugh. He had “Hitler toes,” he’d say. Or “Quisling toes.” They were an artifact of his childhood, a reminder of the Nazi occupation of Norway.

My Dad was seven when the Nazis invaded Norway, twelve when the Germans were finally defeated. And as a child in Norway, it was simply impossible to get new shoes. Any leather that might be used to make shoes was reserved for German soldiers. A Norwegian kid had no chance at all. I suppose that a quisling–a Norwegian traitor–might have gotten on a list somewhere; a Norwegian Nazi might have gotten shoes to match a child’s growth. But my grandfather and great-uncles all were in the Resistance; all were fiercely anti-German. Bestefar, my wonderful grandfather, worked at the glass factory in Moss, making glass for German airplanes and jeeps and warplanes. It was the only time in his life he was bad at a job. Like all Norwegian patriots, he worked slowly, inefficiently, delivering glass of the poorest quality, and sabotaging shipments whenever possible. And then, evenings and weekends, he’d ride a bicycle for miles into the countryside, looking for farmers so he could buy or barter for milk for his kids.

And during air raids, my father would sing. Just a little kid, but he was a natural entertainer even then, as a child, and even then, he sang exuberantly, cheerfully. He loved the folk songs his grandfather taught him, but even more, he loved American songs, especially cowboy songs. At his funeral, my son played Home on the Range on the guitar. Dad loved that song from an early age, and could bang it out on the guitar and sing it at high volume. Everything, with Dad, was high volume.

Because that was Dad. An opera singer, a Wagnerian baritone, and a somewhat hammy but effective singing actor; he was above all, an entertainer. And he loved it. He loved everything about it, singing, acting, performing. He was never more alive than when he was singing.

At his funeral, my brothers and I knew we needed to hear his voice again. That, for me, was the hardest part of his death; the thought that that voice had been silenced. So we played this:

“I love life.” Nothing captured Dad better. Really, I never knew him to be down; never knew him to have the blues. He loved to sing, yes. But he loved all of it. He loved waterskiing, and hiking, and tooling around Lake Monroe in his boat. He loved playing catch with his boys, loved playing basketball with us, loved tossing a football around. He wasn’t much of an athlete, but that didn’t matter; he’d come home from a hard day teaching–or rehearsing or coaching–and he’d see us out playing. He had to join us.

And he loved to travel. He and Mom visited every continent–yes, including Antarctica–and everywhere he went, he took his camera. He was an outstanding photographer, with a great eye for composition and color and contrast. His skills with a camera are shared today by my brother, Rob; two terrific nature photographers. Dad also loved to work with his hands. He could build anything, and loved it, a good carpentry project. And what he build, lasted. My brother Rolf is currently working with his sons to renovate a home; again, my Dad’s legacy continues.

And what about me? Because I was always the odd man out, I thought. When we’d take the boat out, I brought a book; I’d rather read. I had no carpentry skills whatsoever; I really, genuinely, can’t fix things, or build things, or imagine ever wanting to. I liked to sing, but we all sang; you couldn’t be a Samuelsen and not sing. I fancied myself an intellectual; my Dad was an academic, but hardly any kind of scholar. His publications were all performances. My Dad was the ultimate extrovert, outgoing and charming and greatly beloved. As I said at his funeral, he probably had more close personal friends in Iceland and South Korea than I have total. My Dad was larger than life, a booming, friendly, lover of life. He was also a man of immense kindness and charity. I think I’m fairly outgoing, and certainly try to get along with people. But in many respects, we were different people, and we struggled for mutual understanding. We clashed at times; I regret that more than I can say.

But then I think of Dad’s toes. And how little they mattered. They probably hurt when he walked; he never mentioned it, though, and wouldn’t have cared. He had a heart attack; he also had a stroke. Neither slowed him down. Yes, he was tough. But more than that, he couldn’t let minor health problems get in the way. There was too much life to experience, too much of the world to see.

Within Mormonism, there’s a rhetorical stance in which we’re urged to reject the world and worldly values. I don’t altogether understand it. I love the world; I really do. I don’t mean that I love nature, or the planet, or pretty scenery. I mean, I like scenery too, but mostly, what I like about nature is keeping it out of my house. No, I love the world. I love art, and performance, and good theatre. I love opera, and musicals, and dance. I love comedians and comedy, musicians and music. I love movies. In fact, I won’t even say that I love good movies. I love all movies, indiscriminately. I think the world is amazing. I want to live now, on the earth today, with wifi and air conditioning and dentistry and antibiotics.

I remember Dad in a Priesthood class once. The lesson was on humility, and Dad raised his hand. And Dad said, “look, I’m an opera singer. I can’t do what I do unless I’m pretty sure that I’m good at it. I’m grateful that I’ve been blessed with certain talents. But I do have those talents. I’m a great singer. I have to know that, or I can’t do it.”

And so my Dad embraced the world. Oh, he didn’t like all of it. He never did understand rock music, for example, and was appalled by a lot of recent opera stagings that he saw. He’d call me from time to time, and he’d say ‘did you see that performance? It’s exactly the approach that you like. And you’re wrong, and here’s why.’ And we’d talk it out. It amused me, that he’d get on me for potentially liking a performance I hadn’t actually seen. What I now realize is that it probably amused him too.

But he was a wonderful Dad. He may not have always completely understood me, but he never stopped trying, and he never stopped loving me, and he never stopped telling me how much he cared. And I never stopped loving him. Heavenly Father gave me Roy Samuelsen, as a mentor, teacher, father and friend. I am so immensely grateful. And miss him more than I can possibly say.



Multi-level marketing (scams)

You know that thing where you’re talking to someone about something, and it’s a thing you have a strong feeling about, and you express that strong opinion, strongly? And it turns out you probably expressed yourself more strongly than you should have? I did that recently.

Utah is home to many many multi-level marketing companies. Just in Utah County, I can think of several. NuSkin sells, like, dietary supplements. DōTERRA sells essential oils; I think they call their salespeople ‘wellness advocates.’  Morinda sells various products derived from a morinda citrafolia, a Tahitian tree that produces the noni plant, juice from which is supposed to be good for you. There’s also Neways; they also sell nutritional supplements. There’s Young Living–they sell essential oils–and Nature’s Sunshine–natural health supplements. There are many others.

And they all work the same way. Ordinary folks sign up for this stuff, and sell the product, but are also trying to get their friends involved in selling it too. You make your money via a pyramid. You get a cut out of your sales, but you also get a cut from the sales of the people beneath you on the pyramid. The basic model is Amway. Also Bernie Madoff.

Here’s the strong opinion I expressed that got me in trouble. I think multi-level marketing companies are all crooks. I think they should all be illegal. I think they’re scams, ripoffs, hoaxes, frauds. I think their CEOs should be in jail. I think the normalization of con artists is a bad idea, and that businesses built on a pyramid model are nothing but Ponzi schemes, pure and simple. And I tend to think their products are all, without exception, worthless crap.

I come by these views honestly. I have family members who have been ripped off in Ponzi schemes. I have seen how devastating they can be. I know people whose lives were ruined by Amway. I think the world would be a happier place if Amway was shut down, and its business leaders thrown in the slammer. And that would include Dick DeVos, former Amway CEO and husband of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education. And that includes Jason Chaffetz, my Congressman, a former NuSkin exec.

In China, MLMs are illegal. Good for them. If you want to know why they’re not illegal in the US, check the previous paragraph: they’re well-connected. The Federal Trade Commission has been trying to shut down Herbalife for years. Herbalife has responded in the usual way; by buying Congressmen, and by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on high-powered legal representation. So does Amway; so does Mary Kay. These are rich, powerful companies. They aren’t going to be easy to stop.

And they’re big in Utah. And that bothers me. Why are Utah Mormons susceptible to these kinds of scams? Because we’re naive, gullible, trusting? That’s surely part of it. But it’s also Church connections. Our lives tend to center around wards. And our fellow ward members are also our friends. If a person you think of as a friend comes to you and says, ‘hey, I know about this great opportunity, a way for you to make a little extra money, and also enjoy better health. It’s worked for me, and it can work for you.’ Well, that’s a powerful inducement.

It’s also why these things are so insidious. A friendship shouldn’t be about some outside agenda. We’re friends because we genuinely like each other. We’re friends because we decided to make a commitment to someone, to maintain and nurture a relationship with another person, for its own sake, not because you can make something from it. MLMs take the idea of friendship, that personal connection we feel towards other people, and profane it. It’s fundamentally sociopathic. It’s like doing your home teaching solely to get good numbers, without making any effort to actually make friends.

Pyramid scams take basic, honest human feelings and turn them into sales opportunities. I want to believe that my friends like me because they like me. Not because they think they can sell me some kind of weirdo goop. Frankly, I think MLMs are worse than Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Madoff ran an investment firm; his clients may have thought of him as a friend, but that friendship began as a business relationship.

I remember when my wife and I moved to Utah. I was a new BYU faculty member, and we hardly knew a soul. Some old friends of my parents, BYU veterans, invited us over for dinner, and we were thrilled. We knew these people a little, and it was nice to think that they wanted to be friends, maybe introduce us around to this new university subculture.

And then they pulled out their selling materials, and told us all about what a great deal Amway was.

We weren’t just offended. We were hurt. We were angry. We hid it pretty well, and are still able to greet these folks, when we run into them, with polite cordiality. But what an opportunity wasted! Of course, any possibility of actual friendship was completely gone. And that’s a shame.

So, sorry, but it’s time for these rip-offs to end. China got this one right. MLMs serve no legitimate role in any healthy economy. Or in any health-promoting friendship.


My Rudolf fiasco

We had our ward Christmas party last Friday, and I was part of the featured entertainment. I have this thing I do; a kind of fractured fairy tales thing, only for Christmas. I gather the kids up on stage, and sit in a comfy chair, and tell them a Christmas story. Only I mess it up. I’ve learned over the years that little kids love correcting a grown-up, so I pretend to be wholly incompetent. I’ll start by telling the story of the Grinch, say, only I’ll drag in everything from Goldilocks to Sleeping Beauty to Lord of the Rings. And every time the story goes off the rails, the kids are outraged. “No!” they cry. “That’s not how it goes!” And I course-correct, and a great time is had by all.

I’ve done this for years. I did it with my children when they were young, and their friends, and other kid relatives. I am, it seems, fairly good at feigning befuddlement.

I did it in our ward last year, and it went well. The kids were appropriately incensed by my, to them, astonishing inability to tell a simple Christmas story. One kid–maybe 5 or 6–came up to me in Church the next Sunday. “Boy,” he said, shaking his head. “You are the worst story-teller ever.” “I know,” I responded sadly. “I’m sorry. I’m just bad at it.” And he walked away, astonished, no doubt, that someone was fool enough to ask this poor sad sack to tell a Christmas story when it was clearly beyond him.

A couple of years ago, I was on the organizing committee for the Christmas party, and we decided to hire Santa to entertain the kids. Someone knew a professional Santa, a guy in the stake, and we brought him in, despite no one knowing his act. And I’m sorry to say it, but he was a big disappointment. He struck me as the kind of adult who thinks that what kids want is a strong moral lesson. Little kids do not want a strong moral lesson. Little kids want goofiness. And what’s wonderful about children is their exuberance, their energy, their imagination, their love for the truly silly. This Santa couldn’t even be bothered to plop kids on his lap and ask ’em what they wanted for Christmas. If I were Santa–and I’ve got the body type for it–I’d love that; treating each kid as special. But not this guy. I think it got in the way of his preachifying.

Anyway, I was looking forward to this year’s Christmas party. I decided beforehand that I would tell the story of Rudolf the green-nosed reindeer. That way, they’d catch on immediately to the nature of the game. “No!” they’d shout. “Red-nosed reindeer! Rudolf has a red nose! Not a green one.” And we’d be off running.

I do very little preparation for this thing. I can generally keep track in my head of where we are in the story, and which other extraneous tales I’ve already dragged in. I have various stalling tactics I can use when I need to buy time. “Are you sure?” I’ll ask. “I thought Rudolf had a green nose. Green means go; red means stop. Rudolf is what makes Santa’s sleigh go.” And meantime, I’m trying to figure out how to work Little Red Riding Hood into it.

This year, though, the kids were prepped. They were loaded for bear. They’d clearly remembered the goofy Christmas story guy from last year. And they had no interest in playing. In particular, I blame a cabal of older kids, 8 or 9 years old, deeply cynical little post-modernists, who showed up to the Christmas party with a plan. “You want to deconstruct Christmas stories,” I imagine them saying. “Well, deconstruct this, sucka!”

So I go “I’m going to tell the story of Rudolf the green-nosed reindeer.” And a few younger kids were suitably aggravated. “No!” they shouted on cue. But these older kids had the situation in hand. “Yeah,” they said, smirking. “Green-nosed reindeer. Sure. Let’s go with green.”

It didn’t matter where I went with it. They were ready for me. So I said “Let’s see. Santa’s reindeer were Dasher and Prancer, Donner and Blitzen, Comet and Cupid and Harry and Hermione.” And the kids went “Sure! Harry Potter’s a reindeer. Why not?” Yikes.

By the end of the story, Gandolf and Dumbledore were also on Santa’s sleigh, casting spells so Santa could get down particularly narrow chimneys. Cindy Lou Who and the Big Bad Wolf were working together to save Christmas, and Cinderella and the Three Little Pigs were huffing and puffing to get Santa’s sleigh some tailwind. I was tap dancing like Savion Glover, and the story was like Kafka channeling Tristan Tzara. Those kids! Those rotten kids! Derailing my story like that.

Who am I kidding? I had a ball. I had to work a lot harder than usual, but it was a ball. In the end, I brought things home, Santa’s sleigh made it through the fog, Rudolf was a hero, and Harry and Hermione, reindeer, got extra hay at the end of the night. I build an event on mis-told Christmas stories, and the kids did me one better, and turned the night into a pure story adventure. It was kind of a fiasco, but it was also fun, and the kids seemed to enjoy it, making this grown-up sweat. Darn ’em. I fully admit it; I met my match in this particular group of kids. And I couldn’t be prouder.